Exploring Jonestown’s Family Roots: Emily Yaden Schneider

The information in this article comes from genealogical research conducted by Emily Yaden Schneider on families living in Jonestown, as well as from an article on Family Trees that she wrote, and an interview conducted 21 September 2023 by Rebecca Moore.

On 9 March 2019, we opened one of the most amazing emails we’ve ever received. In it, the writer told us she had been working on the genealogies of individuals who died in Jonestown and had discovered some previously-unknown connections between families. She also identified a few “missing” persons, that is, individuals who had not been listed in the Family Trees developed by Fielding McGehee.

Since that time, Emily Yaden Schneider has generated numerous genealogical charts that show the many ties between Jonestown residents who died in 1978. She has also contributed greatly to the development of the Family Trees on the website. Working outside of the website, Yaden Schneider has also created a page on Ancestry.com listing all the individuals who died and as many genealogical threads as she can find. As a result, she has been contacted by people seeking information about family members through Ancestry.com. This means that, at times, she has been the one to notify inquirers about the death of their relatives in Jonestown. “I like being able to help people in this way,” she says. Not everyone welcomes the Jonestown connection, however, and Emily reports that some genealogies leave the death date blank or even put 19 November, although other records clearly indicate the death occurred in Jonestown.

But how would a person with no connection to Peoples Temple or anyone who died in Jonestown find a way to this work, much less spend as many countless hours on it as she has?

As a child, Emily spent a lot of time with her parental grandmother. “She would entertain us with stories of her growing up, and her family growing up, and her dad’s family.” This got her interested in genealogy, and eventually she created genealogies for all her family and friends. She joined a research group that traced family histories of those who died in disasters, like the sinking of the Titanic and major coal mine accidents. This coincided with her finishing Jeff Guinn’s book The Road to Jonestown. She wondered if anyone had developed histories of those who died in Jonestown. “I Googled Jonestown and it came up with a list of people who died. It had all of their birthdays.” That was the beginning of Emily’s work on Family Trees.

“I like to find family origins,” she says. “I like to see how generations have traveled.” In one family — “I can tell a person’s life story, but I can’t remember their name,” she concedes — the great-grandfather came from Trinidad and moved to New York. The family later moved to Chicago, and from there to California, where they joined Peoples Temple. “I like tracing migration patterns, and you really see that when you do genealogy.”

Yaden Schneider also likes to see the interconnectedness of our world. “In our society, we have this idea of the self-made man, the idea of independence. But,” she adds, “you can’t do anything on your own. It’s the connections between the community and different people that make a difference.”

So far, Emily has been making a big difference. By locating one woman’s place of birth and finding her father’s name, Emily assisted one Temple survivor in obtaining Medicaid benefits. In another instance, she identified the husband of Agnes Jones, Jim Jones’ adopted daughter, who had given up her own child for adoption.

“It’s hard to say how accurate the family trees are,” she admits. “Sometimes I can only say I’m pretty sure it’s right, but it’s not certain.” She cites the case of Novella Sneed, which would seem to be an uncommon name. Yet Emily found three women named Novella Sneed born within five years of each other in Austin, Texas. She had to research the history of all three of them to come up with the right Novella Sneed.

In addition to using public records and other documents, Emily also turns to the articles, reflections, and remembrances published on the Jonestown website. The writers may not be related to the individual, “but they grew up with this person so readers know more than a government record can provide. What they were really like, not just what the paper documents said. You can infer info from the documents, but you can’t really know what they were like from those.”

By verifying and correcting the genealogical information on the Family Trees, Emily Yaden Schneider has contributed a great deal to the Alternative Considerations website, making it as accurate and comprehensive as possible. She has also reconnected family members even in death, restoring their dignity and humanity.